U.S. Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., receives generous campaign sponsorship from large pharmaceutical corporations. The state’s long-seated GOP incumbent has seniority that affords him more general influence, but it’s unclear why the former medical doctor has been a longtime recipient of especially high donations from big pharma.

According to Kaiser Health News, Barrasso has received $45,500 in donations from pharmaceutical companies so far this year. If he follows his own trend over the past five years, he is likely to receive six figures before the end of next year. The most he received annually was $155,000 in 2017-18. Since being appointed in 2007 and reelected ever since, total donations to Barrasso from the pharmaceutical industry have totaled $764,750.

As a comparison to others in Wyoming’s congressional delegation, Sen. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., has received no donations from pharmaceutical companies this year and a total of $9,500 since 2009. The most she received in one year was $5,000 in 2011-12. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., has received $30,500 this year. Since beginning her service in 2017, she has received $84,000, with most of that, $51,500, accounted for in 2019-20. According to a STAT Analysis from earlier this year, two-thirds of congressional representatives cashed at least one check from a pharmaceutical industry donor, with the average amount of $13,000 per member.

Barrasso strongly supports the state’s energy industry – the cornerstone of the state’s economy. As the ranking member on the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, he has been consistently outspoken for policies that generally benefit the state’s energy sector and boasts a consistent voting record that shows he backs domestic coal, oil and natural gas development. Pro-energy policies are often prerequisite for any politician sent back East to represent the Cowboy State because those issues affect the livelihood of everyone in the constituency.

But runaway patient costs in health care and pharmaceuticals are arguably equally impactful on Wyomingites, either through direct management of a chronic condition or cost spreading and sharing that is passed on to healthy individuals during preventative or emergency care. Wyoming’s health care costs are among the highest in the U.S., largely because of its large geographical area and low population. However, voters seem to turn a blind eye when the former orthopedic surgeon they elected receives campaign donations from drug companies that exceed the average annual income in the area he serves. These gifts presume favorable outcomes for pharma when things like Medicare reform or patent protection come under legislative scrutiny.

The current system in the U.S. allows an entrepreneur to acquire the manufacturing license for a drug that costs pennies to make and increase its consumer price 5,000% overnight, as Martin Shkreli did in 2015. Under this system, those who depend on insulin to control Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes will make long trips into Canada or Mexico to buy their medication at a small fraction of the U.S. price.

In a new development along the same trajectory this year, three U.S. Food & Drug Administration committee members resigned over the approval of Aduhelm, a drug proposed to treat Alzheimer’s Disease at the price of $56,000 annually per patient, although clinical trials presented skewed data and did not prove efficacy. At that price point, Aduhelm serves as a major driving factor in the premium increase for Medicare Part B in the coming year. The Wyoming chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association estimates there are approximately 10,000 people in the state living with the disease. If even one third of afflicted Wyomingites take Aduhelm, the total price tag would be more than $186 million. For far less, an individual caretaker could be hired to attend to the same patients, and the strategy of having a caretaker at home has real, demonstrable benefit.

Thanks to an inability of the federal government to negotiate Medicare drug prices or require a formulary or price structure, drugmakers funnel billions of taxpayer dollars to pharmaceutical corporations and shareholders. Some of those dollars are also handed out to listening ears seeking re-election, and the outcome of that seems to be lawmakers who are convinced that any regulatory control on the pharmaceutical industry would somehow be fiscally irresponsible and/or stifle innovation.

Both of Wyoming’s senators and the state’s single House member present a voting record that perpetuates ongoing inadequacies in the U.S. drug market, and Barrasso is doing so with conspicuous financial backing by that industry.

Lobbyists sometimes aim to act as information providers to congressional members who might be otherwise unfamiliar topics while simultaneously kicking in campaign contributions in exchange for the listening time and influence afforded to them by legislators. Of all interest groups that vie for leverage in policymaking, pharma stands above every other trade association, nonprofit or corporation when it comes to financial offerings. In the first quarter of this year alone, the pharmaceutical industry spent $92 million, according to Becker’s Hospital Review. Frequent, large donors to Barrasso include Alexion, Pfizer and Eli Lilly.

Barrasso received his medical degree at Georgetown University and conducted his medical residency at Yale before moving to Casper to practice orthopedics. His large contributions from the pharmaceutical industry may be remnant of an industry knowledge being leveraged to advance his campaign, but the implied understanding upon receipt of donations is unclear. Neither he nor his staff in Washington, D.C., returned multiple requests for comment.

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